Last week I went to the opening of Find Us On The Map! a photo exhibition presented by Lagos Photo and Rush Arts Gallery.
The exhibit explores recurring themes in contemporary visual culture in Africa and encourages the audience to Find Us on the Map in accordance with the title of the exhibition. Though there is now a widespread awareness that Africa is not a country, are we better informed about the vast geographical entity? We may be able to name a few countries within Africa but can we find them on a map?
Some of the featured exhibits include Ima Mfon's Nigerian Identity series that tackles the false stereotype of homogenized blackness. In this series of photographic portraits all the subjects are presented in a uniform manner, photographed on a white seamless background, looking directly into the lens, and enhanced so that their skin tones are virtually identical. This idea stems from Mfon's experiences living in America where "black" has always been used as a generic descriptive label. By using a plain background he eliminated any cultural or ethnic context, whether it be urban or an African wilderness and he makes the skin tones in these images rich, deep and beautiful to celebrate beautiful skin that's often oppressed and marginalized.
Jenevieve Aken's series Great Expectations is inspired by Dickens iconic novel of the same title. "Society today, especially in Africa, places a huge emphasis on marriage as an institution and this leads to pressures and stress on a lot of women some of whom are successful but yet feel unfulfilled until married. Happiness, love, friendship are all after thoughts. Marriage first." Jenevieve immersed herself and reinterpreted this story in contemporary Africa-Nigeria society through self-portraiture.
My favorite collection was by Andile Buka from South Africa who's portrait series Sartist Sport takes a more comical approach to identity. It was created as a result of wanting to challenge previous edifice ideas of what it means to be black or African in modern society. The project started as the untold story about urban black sports culture and black identity. It highlights South African athletes, people who went through difficult circumstances, the remnants of colonialism and apartheid when sports were seen as a novelty for black people, a "white man's" activity. The series was to challenge previously conceived ideas of South African black culture that have social and cultural impacts using clothes that were seen only being worn by white people.
Other exhibiting artists include Joana Choumali (Cote d'Ivoire), Colin Delfosse (Belgium), Logo Olumuyiwa (Nigeria), and Nobukho Nqaba (South Africa).
Photography was initially used in Africa to engage audiences with a place that at the time was a complete fantasy. African art, objects, dress, people, and lifestyles were photographed as a means to inform us of the otherness of Africa. These fantasies of Africa, based on very real objects, artwork, and peoples in the past, were the foundation introduction to a continent of 54 independent countries and more than 3,000 ethnic groups. Today, the concept of fantasy is reclaimed and repurposed to narrate stories and engage viewers in innovative ways.
Curated by art historian and artist Chika Okeke-Agula, she said "Folks can't seem to come to terms with the fact that African artists have now taken and secured their seat at the dinner table invited or not. With works of art from Africa receiving long deserved acclaim from museums, curators, and collectors, finding these places on the map becomes a prerequisite for us to be allowed to sit at the table with them. As we begin to develop our understanding of art created on the continent beyond the antiquated, overarching, and superficial title of 'African art', we seek additional information that gives us clues about society religion, and love in African countries."
The show is on exhibit from March 17 - April 8th at Rush Arts Gallery, 526 West 26th Street, Suite 311 NYC